An American Anthem

On September 11, 2002, I participated in a commemoration of 9/11 at my undergraduate alma mater, Alverno College. I brought a piece to sing at the ceremony that I had heard a few years earlier as the title track on an album by baritone Nathan Gunn. It was also sung by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves at the September 14, 2001 memorial held at National Cathedral (for whom it was written by Gene Scheer in 1998 for an event at the Smithsonian Institute).

Alverno didn’t like it. They thought it was “too patriotic” and wanted me to sing “Let there be peace on earth” instead.

I told them that I felt very strongly that this song was the appropriate piece for the event and that if they really didn’t want it, I would withdraw and send one of my high school students instead because pretty much anyone can sing “Let there be peace on earth.”

Yeah, I felt strongly about it. And I got to sing it. 😀

The lyrics of this song speak to me. They speak to me about patriotism from both the perspective of those who wave flags, who fight on battlefields, who protest, who sign petitions, and who vote.

All we’ve been given by those who came before
The dream of a nation where freedom would endure
The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy? What will our children say?

CHORUS: Let them say of me I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings I received
Let me know in my heart when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you

Each generation from the plains to distant shore
with the gifts they were given were determined to leave more
Valiant battles foughts together – acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds from which America has grown. CHORUS

For those who think they have nothing to share
Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there
Know each quiet act of dignity is that which fortifies
The soul of a nation that never dies. CHORUS

(It’s also a heckuva competition winner, for those who are looking for that kind of rep.)

On this 4th of July, I think it’s just the right song for us to hear. Here’s the recording that I first heard (pre-9/11). I hope you like it!

 

“Breath is welcome here”

“Breath is welcome here”

A few months ago, I was talking to one of my students, Erin McManus, about allowing the abdominal muscles to release on inhalation to receive the breath, and I believe that I used the term “welcome the breath.” Erin then smiled beatifically, as she is wont to do, and indicated her abdominal area with a gentle motion and said, “Breath is welcome here.”

Of course, you don’t breathe into the belly. The diaphragm is the dividing line between the respiratory and the digestive system, or, as the late Jean Westerman Gregg said, “between the vitals and the vittles.” (I have used that line ever since I first heard it in 1997, at my very first NATS workshop.) You breathe into your lungs, and as a result of the descent of the diaphragm, your viscera (i.e., guts) are pushed down and your stomach expands outward somewhat. More importantly, your ribs expand. If you are freakishly long-waisted, as am I, you may not find that there’s a great deal of outward expansion. If you are short-waisted, you may find that there’s a LOT of outward expansion.

But you can’t just push out your belly and expect the air to come in. You have to allow the air to enter your body by inhaling quietly, through your nose or mouth, depending on the circumstances, by aligning yourself efficiently so that you aren’t compressing your innards, and by allowing your abdominal muscles, particularly the abdominal floor, to release. Whether it is a sip of air or a deep intake of air, the key element is that of release. A noisy inhalation is inherently high and tense and is distracting. It’s not efficient.

An exercise I do frequently with beginning students is to have them blow out all the air and wait until their bodies need air. And when that moment comes, inhale – but just allow it to happen voluntarily, rather than consciously suck in air. What happens? Is there sound? Where do you feel expansion? Where do you feel release? Is it weird? (Someone said it was weird once, so now I ask.)

Enjoy this video of Nathan Gunn and William Burden singing the famous duet from Pearlfishers and notice how they receive the breath. (It helps that they’re shirtless. In so many ways.)

“Welcome the breath.” Indeed.